I Feel Bad About My Stuff: Getting Rid of Emotional Clutter

That ugly vase from my favorite aunt. Faded kids' art projects, gathering dust. Photos of my ex-husband. It's not clutter, it's toxic. Must be time for some emotional organizing.
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Two years ago I was newly divorced, newly impoverished, and desperate for a fresh start. The quickest, surest fix for all my problems, I decided, was to put the marital house on the market. So I called a real-estate agent, who came over immediately. "Get rid of everything," she said, with a blithe wave of her hand. "Immediately. We'll list in two weeks."

Two weeks? I had two weeks to turn a three-story house where five slobs had lived for seven years into a showpiece? It would not be an exaggeration to say that I went nuts. For 14 exhausting days I did nothing but fill boxes, bins, and bags. "It's not permanent," I told myself, sweeping a mantelpiece-worth of detritus into a cardboard container. "I'm not throwing things away. This is just till the house sells -- then I'll get all my stuff back."

Two weeks later, when I proudly pounded the "For Sale" sign into the fresh-mown grass out front, our cozily cluttered house had magically become a gleaming minimalist museum. Gone were the smiling photos in frames, the lovingly proffered Mother's Day sculptures from my sons, the precious preschool paintings tacked over the bed. Gone were the report cards and class pictures and grocery lists from the fridge -- gone, even, were the magnets that held them there. Gone were all the funky little collectibles the kids and I had strewn across the shelves. Our zillions of books were dusted and lined up neatly and the furniture, devoid of tchotchkes and memorabilia, shone blankly in the sunlight.

The bathrooms looked as if they'd never been used. I'd gone berserk in the medicine chest, throwing out anything that was out of date, unsightly, or unusable. And the linen closet was a thing of beauty: tightly folded rows of color-coded sheets and towels, smelling faintly of sachet. We trod lightly, made our beds in the morning, hung up our towels, and swept ourselves out of the door every morning for months.

After all that, the house didn't sell.

Continued on page 2:  Find the Happy Medium


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